Wednesday, August 27, 2008

South Australia

North of us in Queensland is the beautiful Gold Coast and still further north is Cairns, the gateway to the Great Barrier Reef. To the south are the Australian "Alps" in Victoria and Sydney's edgier sister-city, Melbourne. And in the middle of this great country is Uluru, a rock in a class of its own. Keeping in mind these varied yet intriguing destinations that Australia has to offer, it's a wonder that we opted to take a holiday in South Australia. My mom and two of our dearest friends were visiting us on their first and perhaps only trip to Australia, and there we were on our way to Adelaide, South Australia's capital.

In order to explain how we chose Adelaide, I must provide some background on our travel history as a foursome. Last July, we traveled around Italy for two weeks together before Mickey and I tied the knot. We took the train from Zurich to Milan and then made our way over to Como, Tuscany, Rome and Venice. We explored medieval hill towns and we dined on wild boar pasta and carafes of Chianti over long lunches; we had a marvelous time. However, this romantic romp around Italy was almost ruined by the heat and crowds that come with summer travel. Sure, Cinque Terre would have been magnificent if the views of the coastal villages weren't obscured by other rich, fat Americans and their Rick Steves guide books.

Anyway, we desired the opposite of Italy in July and found South Australia to be just that. It was cold and, despite its beauty, SA is a destination that not many Australians would visit, let alone Americans. Best of all, SA is home to Australia's best Rieslings, so it was an ideal destination for the tasters among us. Moreover, none of us had been there before and the experience was new to us all.

We left on a Thursday afternoon and arrived in Adelaide too late to journey to Clare. Out of fear of running down innocent kangaroos, we restricted our driving to daylight hours and spent our first night in Adelaide. Wandering down streets littered with retail clothing stores at best and seedy strip clubs at worst, we were unimpressed. The restaurant and hotel accommodations recommended by Fodors did little to improve our opinion of SA's capital. Luckily, a venture outside of town to Mickey's colleague's lovely home saved the evening. He treated us to heaping plates of gourmet nibblies (cheese and spreads) and some sticky (dessert, sweet wine).

A visit to the Central Market, the largest produce market in the southern hemisphere, improved our opinion of Adelaide. We loved our breakfast at Zedz so much that we came back for a picnic lunch of fresh bread, cheeses, olives and creamy, berry topped yogurt. I also particularly enjoyed the botanical gardens. We ran to catch up with a free tour, but were delayed by a sudden hailstorm. We waited out the downpour in a covered rainforest exhibit and a greenhouse devoted to giant water lilies.

Our last stop in Adelaide was a quick tour of Haigh's chocolate factory. I went in eager to see thousands of little chocolates traveling along conveyor belts into hundreds of identical boxes. I was surprised to learn how much is actually done by hand at Haigh's. And not by the hands of underpaid child laborers, but by probably unionized Australian workers who looked rather content as we admired their work from behind the plexiglass. After purchasing a couple of bags of Haigh's specialty, scorched chocolate almonds, we drove north out of Adelaide and into the Clare Valley.

Though usually dry and golden, the winter storms colored the fields and low hills a healthy green. We passed through several tiny towns en route to the Old Stanley Grammar School Country House in Watervale. I only booked this place because everything else was unavailable. Looking back, I consider this to be a happy accident because we ended up loving the place.

The Stanley Grammar School first opened its doors to young male boarding students in 1857 when Australia and its wine making industry were still new. Back then and to this day, a fair number of Australians send their children to boarding school not to prove status, but because it's practical. This country is sparsely populated and having students board at school during the week makes more sense than long commutes.

Anyway, despite the hundred year old spit balls that still cling to its ceiling, the Stanley is elegant and comfortable. Denise, the proprietor, had decorated each room with attention to detail. Keeping such a large old building warm is no small task, but they manage with faux fireplace heaters in the bedrooms and an actual roaring fire in the enormous lounge (once the main school room). Denise and her husband Frank had only recently been granted the local permissions allowing them to turn this heritage building into a B&B, and their greenness as hosts showed. They surrendered their own living quarters to other guests and had to spend some cold nights in their camper van. They kept saying they'd "leave us be," but we found ourselves awkwardly sharing the kitchen.

Soon, they'll have learned from their new B&B mistakes, such as not making the beds when guests have paid $200+ for you to do just that. Housekeeping wasn't Denise's strong point and as it turned out, neither was cooking. She said she had tried preparing a cooked breakfast for guests, but that the timing was difficult. I thought this was strange because, as the owners of a B&B, you're supposed to make it work. Her solution to upholding the breakfast end of the deal while avoiding cooking was to fill large baskets of food and stick them in the fridge for guests. This worked for us because we enjoyed frying up eggs and bacon at our leisure.

We spent the first day on rented bikes from Sevenhill Cellars, one of the Clare Valley's oldest wineries owned by Jesuit priests. The property was picturesque and being able to bike around it only added to the charm. However, the Riesling Trail was the reason behind my desire to hire bikes. A wide, well maintained path atop old railway tracks, the Riesling Trail is mostly flat and provides easy access to the wineries. We deviated away from it to spend a wine soaked three hour lunch at Skillagalee Winery and encountered a couple of challenging hills for us novice bikers. Still, it was a picture perfect day complete with a sighting of 'roos lazing among the vines.

The next day we encountered more stunning landscapes en route to the outback. We drifted west in attempts to catch the southern tip of the Flinders Ranges, but didn't notice a dramatic change of scenery. As we headed back northeast, though, the land slowly began to change from grassy fields to red dirt and endless bush, to our great relief. The rest of SA had been so verdant, we wondered if the outback in winter would be the same uncharacteristic green.

However, when we arrived at the East Whydown Station, 30 kilometers outside of a nothing town called Yunta, we knew we were getting the real outback experience. In fact, it was a little too real, too authentic even. My heart sank when our hostess Joan showed us to our plain, toilet-less rooms. The dunnys (outdoor lavatories), were about 20 meters away from our beds in the shearers' quarters. Twenty meters was not far enough to get lost on the way back from a sleepy shuffle to the toilet, but it was long enough to encounter an insomniac boxing kangaroo or a deadly spider. Such thoughts make the chamber pot idea look like a reasonable option. Anyway, I had to do some quick outback math: 20 outdoor meters away from the potty - 5 kilometers to the main road (and the world of indoor plumbing) + $600 already paid to Chris and Joan = no turning back in the outback.
In retrospect, I'm glad I didn't know that East Whydown lacked indoor toilets, insulation and heating. I would regret never having had this adventure. Almost as soon as we arrived, Chris led us on an informative tour of the woolshed. We later learned that Chris is affectionately called 'Decimal' by his friends. This is an apt nickname for a man who loves throwing around unit-less data. "That looks about five, six, eighteen, fifty maybe," he'd estimate while gazing at his sheep. Was he talking about the birthweight of his lambs? Centimeters of rainfall? The price of a kilo of wool, or what? After the tour, the five of us admitted that we only understood a fraction of what Chris had said. Fortunately, we put our fractions together to construct a whole picture of how the sheep station operates.

The next day we were treated to another tour of the entire property. At first, the 245 square kilometers appeared unchanging; there was nothing but desolate bush in all directions. However, as Chris guided us and pointed out variants of gum trees and salt bush, I began to notice subtle changes. The tour of this immense nothingness, was indeed chock full of... stuff. We kicked up pottery shards from an abandoned homestead, mustered wayward hoggerts, had a picnic in a woolshed and lived a day in the life of two modern-day pioneers.

It wasn't hard to say goodbye to East Whydown because we were sick of being cold and longed for the luxury of not needing shoes for a trip to the bathroom or shower. However, I do miss the night sky in the outback, the quiet and the beauty of red dirt contrasted against a blue horizon.

We took six days out of our busy routines to explore a slice of Australia and flew back to Sydney not having seen the reef nor the rock. I'm still eager to visit those Australian must-see destinations, but I loved my days in South Australia, dunnys and all.

Monday, August 25, 2008

Let’s take the Chunnel!

Not to be outdone by my brother, my mom, Nan Rennie, wrote a guest post of her own. Here, she reflects on her past as a traveler and how it shaped her attitude toward spending two months with us in Sydney.

My earliest memories are of travel and eating. Go figure. When I was two and a half years old, my family flew from Chicago to Seattle because my father had been transferred. My sister Jill was a baby in my mother’s arms (there were no infant seats in those days) and my sister Tina was not yet on the travel scene. I mention my sisters because they play a large role in my travel story.

It wasn’t until my teenage years that I flew again. That time it was from NYC to Fort Lauderdale, Florida and the Bahamas. The airplane trip became memorable because I was old enough to be aware of the thrill of acceleration, lift off, and a sense of soaring toward adventure. We “dressed” for travel in those days. I remember the exact outfit I wore. It was a kelly green, linen sleeveless mini-dress with matching white shoes and bag. I wore the same outfit on my return along with a sassy straw hat and jewelry purchased in Nassau. For fabulous travel garb of the same era, watch the 1967 movie "Two for the Road" starring Audrey Hepburn and Albert Finney. The story followed a marriage via the couple’s travels through Europe in various vehicles showcasing great wardrobes. Audrey looked absolutely adorable in every outfit. All my female peers wanted our travel experience to be just like Audrey’s: cool, nonchalant and dressed to kill.

In my twenties and thirties, travel consisted solely of bi-coastal visits with family and in-laws. I dreamed of the Great “Trip to Europe,” though. It was a very hip thing to do in the late 1960s, after college and before real life. My husband and I married young and made plans to work for a year or two, save money and go for our budget version of “The Grande Tour.” Sadly, it was not to be. I came down with Hodgkin’s Disease the trip was put on hold and then relegated to a part of the past.

In the meantime, my sisters kicked it up a few notches. Jill was and still is a “take time to smell the roses” kind of traveler and Tina wants to “do it all”. There was a 1969 movie titled, “If It’s Tuesday, This Must Be Belgium.” The title hints that the plot centers around a whirlwind tour of Europe. Tina does it with style, but she could exhaust any travel companion on five continents. We used to say she could compete in the faux-lympics in two events: endurance shopping and cross country travel.

Jill became an RN. She worked double and triple shifts, and when she had enough money in the bank, chose her next destination. She traveled with nurse friends and went to exotic Bali, New Zealand, Australia, South America and Europe. Her subsequent marriage to an art expert and museum curator took them to many European and Latin American sites. Her second daughter’s first words nearly were “not another cathedral!” Tina’s marriage to a Persian man already familiar with Iran, Italy and Switzerland, later traveled for business. This afforded her the opportunity for global excursions. They have been just about everywhere. They complement each other beautifully because they are both full of adventure, energy and wanderlust.

Many years later (in my fifties), I finally made it to Europe. My sweet daughter, blogger extraordinaire, studied abroad at the University of Edinburgh during her junior year. I applied for my first passport in order to visit her there. Proof positive that this time I was going to get to do my little version of Europe.

A few months later, I was awarded a grant from an educational foundation and traveled to Japan and Korea for three weeks. I was busy from early morning until late evening every night for three weeks. Frankly, many of the cities and incredible beauty were lost on me because of exhaustion. I have to consult my travel diary to remember big chunks of time there. It was the earlier trip though, the Edinburgh one, that prompted the phrase, “Let’s take the Chunnel!”

When planning the trip to Scotland, I mentioned to Tina that I was flying in and out of London and on the return had seven free hours. Tina immediately asked, “aren’t you seeing Paris?” She stated matter of factly, that during the layover I had enough time to take the Chunnel, have a coffee, see the Eifel Tower, Arch d’ Triomphe and return. Could I picture myself with a flip of the hair, and a wave of the hand, a la Audrey Hepburn exclaiming, “Let’s take the Chunnel, dahling!” Nah, not me. I may be terminally uncool, but I know my limitations and unsuperpower.

I am a liberal in many areas, but travel isn’t one of them. I am a conservative traveler. I tend to play it safe. I don’t enjoy long days filled to the brim. I prefer the small adventures I can take the time to savor and sit with for a while. I love it when someone else draws up the plans and I get to go along for the scenic ride.

Last year, I visited my daughter and her husband in Switzerland for a month. This year I spent eight weeks in Sydney. (Thank God for kids who have great jobs in great locations and actually want me to share time with them!) One highlight of the trip to Zurich was a two day stay at the countryside home of an employer’s mother. As women of a similar age and occupation, I had the chance to talk for hours with a British born, Swiss woman and gain insight into her daily life as a mother, teacher, wife and widow in an almost parallel universe.

This winter/summer in Sydney has helped me determine just who I am as a traveler. I love living in a place, not just visiting there. I love talking to strangers, making new friends and inquiring about their lives. I talk to everyone, be it a student waiting for a bus, a passenger on an elevator, or someone I share a lunch table with at the Bondi Junction Food Court.

I am not the Ugly American (although I have traveled with him), nor am I the woman who will “take the chunnnel” but I am the happy traveler who just might take a neighborhood walk to the food market and chat up the greengrocer during a layover.

Saturday, August 16, 2008

Words to Stop Using

My husband talked about doing it many times, my mom even started one, but my brother beat them both to the punch and submitted a guest blog to me last week. Below, Nic Rennie calls for the abolishment of two rather tame English words not because they stir up trouble, but because he thinks they're unnecessary. Sorry, Nic, I didn't realize how often the f-word came out of my yuppie mouth. Now, I know better and you, dear reader, will too.

We all have (at least I assume we do) certain words or phrases that get under our skin. Some of us don’t like profanity; my sister doesn’t like “the c-word.” A lot of people (namely the fascists who program spell check) still ain’t down with the word 'ain’t.'

I may be unique in that I am not bothered by words for their obscenity or late arrival into English dictionaries. I am bothered rather by certain words simply because of the way they are used, the people who use them, and/or my deeming them to be unnecessary.

The first word I think everybody (at least people under the age of 75) needs to stop using is "supper”. This word is a thing of the past. There is no more such a thing as supper; Jesus had the last one, get over it. The s-word is to old people what the n-word is to black people. It's okay when they say it, but it’s not okay when you say it. Exactly why this one bothers me I can’t really say, maybe it’s because it reminds me of old people (expect a whole article on the phrase ‘the greatest generation’). Or, maybe it’s because although I love slang and the evolution of language, we do not need two words that are exactly the same, unless we are talking about body parts, bodily functions, or marijuana. Supper means dinner, and dinner is already a word. It’s not even like you’re replacing dinner with a cool new term like “the late plate” (ok that’s not actually cool, but you get the point). Does it make you more mature to say supper? Does it describe your meal more accurately? Does it stop you from being a douche? No, no, and no.

A word I like even less, or perhaps more appropriately, a certain usage of a word I like less is when people use the lame, pseudo-intellectual, ambiguous and totally unnecessary word “film” in place of the totally functional word “movie”. I don’t mind if you have a thin filmy substance to describe or need to get film for your non-digital camera, but to call a movie a film is to call oneself totally smart, hip, and elite while being totally wrong. Okay, f-word users, when was the last time you went to the films? Do you own any films on DVD? Does that even make any sense? When movies are recorded and displayed completely digitally (probably sooner than later) are you still going to sit there and display your superior intellect by taking the verbal road less traveled by? Or, are you going to display it by continuing to strive for technical correctness and say things like “yes, I saw ‘digitally encoded information’ and I was moved to tears because I’m a big, fat, soft-hearted idiot”? I can’t wait, oh wait, yeah I can.

Saturday, August 09, 2008


I predicted that Yulefest, a Christmas dinner in July in the Blue Mountains, would be cheesy. And with artificial trees, sequined Santa hats and red and green colored champagne, it lived up to my expectation. What came as a surprise was the fact that it truly felt like Christmas. Nearly everyone was dressed up and cameras flashed frequently as families took cheerful photos in front of the Christmas tree and festive fireplace.

We knew it was Christmas when the ladies at the next table got roaring drunk during the first course of the meal and had a little too much fun with the noisemakers in their Christmas crackers. Of course, we couldn't retort with our own noisemakers because there was a misunderstanding about our seating, another telling sign of Christmas.

Fortunately, no one needed to turn on the tears before the situation was rectified; our American sense of entitlement did the trick. The management added a table to the end of our own, completely blocking the path and thus violating the fire code, I'm sure. If there had actually been a fire, we would have made like Santa and escaped by twitching our noses. The management also gave us two complimentary bottles of wine and we were more than satisfied with that.

We settled in to our extra long table, poured ourselves some glasses of wine and finally cracked open our delightful Christmas party favors. These Christmas crackers are one of the best parts of celebrating the holiday in the UK or Australia. They're meant to crack when you pull them apart, but not all of ours did. I'm guessing the Mountain Heritage Inn didn't spring for the most expensive crackers. Anyway, each comes with a colorful paper crown and some other trinket or noisemaker.

The crowns are good fun because they level the playing field in a way; whether you're young or old, painfully sober or off your face drunk, the crown makes you look silly. And once people all look ridiculous and feel ridiculous, then they can loosen up and have fun. Isn't it amazing how a simple hat can work the same magic as alcohol? Outside of a southern US cattle ranching context, wearing a cowboy hat, for instance, indicates that one is ready to party.

The food wasn't great; it's what you'd expect from a mid-range hotel kitchen serving 200 almost identical five course Christmas dinners. The creamy pavlova was sandwiched between two deceptive white disks of meringue. They look like two fluffy what sugar pillows, but they're actually too hard and cloying. Likewise, the Christmas pudding was tainted by alcohol and thus not appealing to me either. I always say that adding alcohol is the quickest way to ruin a dessert.

Still, we didn't come for the food; we were there for the atmosphere that accompanies the food. And there were plenty of helpings of that. We were entertained by three amateur singers who would have been eliminated in the very first round of American Idol (and I'm sure Australian Idol) auditions. Sadly, we couldn't play Simon Cowell and abruptly say, 'next!' Nor could we veto their costumes which looked like Dickensian caroller meets Christmas-themed Vegas casino elf.

After a couple of drinks, though, we were singing along to Rudolf and Santa Clause is Coming to Town. It wasn't Norman Rockwell, but then again, maybe he never celebrated Christmas in July in Australia.